Happy Father’s Day, Dad: I’m a Computer Scientist Because of You
The first time I visited New York City, I didn’t see the Empire State building or the Statue of Liberty. On my first visit to Manhattan I saw the Ancient Egypt Exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I was seven years old, I developed a deeply intense interest in Ancient Egyptian history. It was one of those voracious passions that a geeky kid just can’t seem to help themselves from. I eventually amassed a collection of historical books, imitation amulets, and fake papyrus scrolls filled with “secret” messages written in hieroglyphs. I would dress up like Cleopatra to go to school, and while some kids played “house”, I would play “Pharaoh’s Court” (even if it was with my imaginary friends). My intense interest was not shared by my friends, but one person made sure to buy the books, book the train ticket to the Met, and help me to cultivate my interests independently: my father.
While my early foray into Ancient Egyptian history may seem far afield from future life as a computer scientist, I see many common threads. Sure, my obsession with writing secret messages in hieroglyphs may have been an early indicator of my interest in cryptography, and I did hack my GeoSafari (what’s up, 90’s kids) to create my own quizzes on the Ptolemic dynasty, but this story also made two things very clear to me: my father has always been supportive of my intellectual curiosity and my independence.
He was not a software engineer or a mathematician, but he exemplified and cultivated in me the qualities that would help me become one.
That deep interest in 2nd grade was not one that was shared by my friends or one with information and resources easily accessible to me, but my father made sure that interests were validated and supported, regardless of the world’s expectations.
Intellectual curiosity and education were an essential part of my eventual decision to become a mathematician and computer scientist. While I experienced impostor syndrome in many of my math and computer science classes, I would eventually get to a core concept I was obsessed with learning more about, and my father would reflect that excitement back to me. In my freshman year, I was still undecided and stressed about deciding on my major. There were so many options at that time: math, philosophy, political science, religious studies. But when my father came to visit and took me out to lunch, I couldn’t stop talking about Euler’s identity. I had just learned about the beautiful mathematical equation, which so elegantly captured so many fundamental concepts. My mind was blown. My dad just looked back at me and said, “Em, I think you know what you want to major in.”
Throughout my life, my father has always encouraged my intellectual pursuits and education was the first priority. Homework and studying were taken very seriously in my household growing up. My father cares deeply about economic opportunity and fairness, and it was clear to me through his word and example that education was one of the keys to solving those problems. He would stay up late studying with me, bring me snacks when I was working all weekend on a project, and hug me when I stressed. While our areas of focus were different, I realized as I got older how similar my father and I were in how we approached our work. We both felt a deep responsibility to do good work and to do it right, and we both put a fair amount of pressure on ourselves and are always wanting to learn more. That kind of attitude and approach to education proved to be crucial in my studies in computer science. The subject is amazing, but was often challenging. That kind of grit and voracity for learning was something that I know was crucial to my success in CS.
My father grew up on a farm in Western Massachusetts. His parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, but they knew they had a smart son, and knew that college would be in his future. They likely expected him to become a doctor or a lawyer, but when he expressed an interest in pursuing a PhD in anthropology, they supported him. My father worked several jobs — as a janitor, EMT, and others — to financially support his chosen career. He didn’t do what was expected of him on many levels. He was driven internally.
Having this kind of role model was crucial for me in combating the gender gap in computer science.
No, my father had never had the experience of being the only woman in CS 101. He has never been a woman, and he has never programmed before. But he did have the experience of finding a path that hadn’t been laid down for him beforehand.
Not only was I able to see that as a model, he was supportive of me and encouraged me when I had those moments where I almost dropped out. At those times, he would remind me of the trailblazing women I did admire: Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Steinem, Grace Hopper. I remember once feeling feeling down that I was so busy with CS classes that I didn’t have time to attend the feminist and women’s studies group meetings at my university. He made me feel better by reminding me that I didn’t have time for everything, and that I was already living many of the feminist issues we would discuss in those meetings.
To all the fathers out there, thank you for encouraging your girls to pursue what they are passionate about, arming them with education, and giving them the confidence to continue on their paths.
You don’t need to be a software engineer to encourage your daughter to study computer science; you just have to remind her that she’s capable, and encourage her intellectual curiosity.
For the daughters who don’t have a father like this, seek out the role model who will remind you that your desire to learn is valid and that you are capable of doing so. It all comes from the inside, we just often need someone who can remind us how strong we are. Thank you, Dad, for always reminding me how strong I am, and showing me through your example. I am who I am today because of you.